Television

Another Margaret Atwood Adaptation Shines on Netflix

Alias Grace is preferable to a new, terrible S.W.A.T. reboot.

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  • 'Alias Grace'
    'Alias Grace,' Netflix

    S.W.A.T. CBS. Thursday, November 2, 10 p.m.

  • Alias Grace. Available November 3 on Netflix.

Whether it's a metaphor or an omen, the confluence of the debuts of CBS' S.W.A.T. and Netflix's Alias Grace this week is painful. Broadcast television is showcasing its antiquary status by wrapping up its fall season with a tepid remake of a failed 1970s cop drama, while Netflix, the model of TV's future, offers a subtle, layered dissection of the nature of truth wrapped inside a macabre double-murder.

The most remarkable thing about Alias Grace may not even be its content, though that's quite extraordinary, but that it's the second time in six months that Canadian author Margaret Atwood, now tiptoeing toward her 80th birthday, has had one of her books adapted into a miniseries. Who knew literary feminism could be so profitable?

Except that's far too narrow a label to pin on Atwood. The intellectual underpinnings of her work are more complex and elusive than many of her fans recognize. Men often behave badly in her novels, but so do women. Like The Handmaid's Tale, which is as much a critique of totalitarianism as it is of male supremacy, Alias Grace abounds with ideas about a host of subjects in addition to feminism: Class. Poverty. Penology. Religion. Epistemology.

All this is packaged in a fictionalized account of the 1843 murder of a wealthy Canadian land owner and his housekeeper by two other members of the household staff. The killers, a stable hand named James McDermott and an oft-mistreated maid named Grace Marks, fled to the United States, but were captured. McDermott, who confessed but blamed Marks for egging him on, was executed. Marks, who said she had lost all memory of the crime, was confined to an asylum.

Alias Grace opens 15 years after the murders. A group of Methodist gentry, seeking a pardon for Marks, has hired Dr. Simon Jordan—an alienist, as early psychologists were called—to investigate the case in hopes of proving she was not sane at the time of the crime.

After the opening moments, almost everything that happens in Alias Grace is told through the framing device of her lengthy conversations with Jordan. And it's immediately apparent that as a narrator, she's far from reliable, evading some of his questions, falsifying her answers to others.

The obvious question is whether Grace's equivocations are an attempt to take back some control over a life that has long been usurped by her father, her employers, and the masters of the bone-breaking penal and mental institutions to which she has been confined. Or is she trying to conceal something?

Her own musings are ambivalent. The sincerity of the doctor's gentle and largely sympathetic interrogations, she notes in a letter to a friend, make her feel like an overripe peach, ready to burst and spill its contents. But, she reminds herself: "Inside the peach is a stone."

On the other side of this unbalanced equation, Dr. Jordan is increasingly subsumed in fantasies about his patient. But are they born of romance? Or—as she suspects—is the brutality of her life functioning as a sort of misery-porn for a man secretly thrilled by tales of female subjugation?

Much of Alias Grace was scripted by Atwood herself, and it shares her literary sensibilities more than any other screen adaptation of her work. What might have been a rather talky script is enlivened by the peerless performances of Sarah Gadon (who played the romantically doomed librarian in the Hulu miniseries production of 11.22.63) as the wan but flinty Grace and Canadian TV regular Paul Gross as the bewildered Dr. Jordan.

The story is certainly told in feminist tones—occasionally accusatory, sometimes only chiding. But Grace has more to contend with than the patriarchy.

She's afflicted by the British class system, retained to a far greater degree in loyalist Canada than the renegade United States (longing gazes across the border are a regular occurrence). And she's confounded by the dominant Calvinist strain of Canadian Protestantism, which she simultaneously embraces ("You should be careful about wanting anything at all," she warns Dr. Jordan, "for you may be punished for it") and mocks. "There's no use of crying over spilt milk if you don't know if the milk is spilt or not," she says dismissively of predestination.

Ultimately, though, Alias Grace is an examination of the tenebrous nature of truth. Grace's declaration that "we are what we remember" may be a comfort to conscience, but it's also a warning.

If you can't always be certain of just what you're seeing in Alias Grace, S.W.A.T. is just about the direct opposite. Now in its third incarnation, this cop drama is the same old collection of cliches—hot-tempered rookie, weary old vet, more flying lead than a Raqqa Friday night—that it's been these past four decades.

S.W.A.T. was originally conceived in 1975 as a civilian replacement for military shows like Combat! that had fallen out of favor during the Vietnam war; the idea was that all that bang-bang would be socially acceptable if it was directed at American criminals instead of German and Japanese draftees.

That theory didn't work out; S.W.A.T. immediately came under attack by TV-cleaner-uppers for its violence (which was remarkable for the time), the ratings floundered, and it was gone in a season in a half. For reasons unfathomable even to the highest of Hollywood's voodoo priests, it keeps getting revived for movie and TV remakes. I'd like to say this new CBS version will be the last, but I don't want to anger Russian hackers by butting into the fake news landscape.

S.W.A.T.'s co-executive producer Shawn Ryan is best-known for The Shield, a rogue cop show which plumbed the limits of how far Americans were willing to go to protect themselves in the post-9/11 world. He and colleague Aaron Rahsaan Thomas are trying something similar with S.W.A.T., recasting it into a clash of identity politics vs. thin-blue-line loyalty for black cops in the age of Black Lives Matter.

Give them credit for trying a different take on cop shows, but S.W.A.T. simply falls flat in every conceivable way. Just as in 1975, the only thing interesting about the show is Barry De Vorzon's theme song. Can Welcome Back, Kotter be far behind?

NEXT: Ed Gillespie's Scaremongering On Felon Voting Rights Is a Sloppy Return to Crime Hysteria

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  1. I’d like to say this new CBS version will be the last, but I don’t want to anger Russian hackers by butting into the fake news landscape.

    SASSY!

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  2. I’d love to see a fifth incarnation, the reality one, where SWAT raids neighborhood poker games and every fourth show gets the address wrong.

  3. Men often behave badly in her novels, but so do women.

    Hillary Clinton called out women for voting for Donald Trump their bad behavior.

  4. Oh please, Atwood is as big as hack as there is.

    And amusingly, had she written the same stuff about Muslims as Christians, she’d be condemned by both the left and be Salman Rushdied. Which of course is why she doesn’t.

    1. “Which of course is why she doesn’t.”

      Had Salman been Kanadian rather than Kashmiri, he’d be an amusing hack too.

    2. You consider the dominant cult in “Handmaid’s Tale” Christians? I don’t. They’ve coopted some Christian rhetoric, some Marxist and some from other sources, but they’re no more Christians than the old Nazis or Soviets (both of whom also tried to coopt some Christian rhetoric even while the leaders and insiders mocked the whole idea of Christianity). I think the book, at least, makes it clear that they’re *exploiters* of Christians.

  5. I only have six words for Mrs. Atwood: you’re either swat or you’re not. -Colin Farrell

  6. “Who knew literary feminism could be so profitable?”

    In today’s atomized TV audience, they are narrow casting to a demographic big on moral preening. They do not have to have wide appeal to the general public.

  7. At first I thought from the teaser headline that Will Alias Grace was a transgender reboot of Will & Grace!

    1. Just saw yours after posting mine. Glad i’m not the only one who was confused!

  8. When I read the home page headline for this article, “Will Alias Grace Adaptation Replicate Success of The Handmaid’s Tale? New at Reason” I was expecting a review of a show about Will and Grace in which Grace is just Will’s drag persona.

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  10. Is Handmaiden’s Tale a success? No one in my social circle have watched it and some don’t know what it is. But every single one of them have watched just about every Marvel film in existence.

    1. Well, objectively the book topped several of the best seller lists. However, it probably was not popular among comic book fans.

      1. I was forced to read it for a class. And yes, it was awful. I’m an atheist and don’t detest Christians as much as Atwood does (not that that’s the reason I dislike the book; it’s just a slog of a thing).

        1. You read the book, and you think the ruling cult of the Republic of Gilead are Christians? ??? I’m getting confused!

  11. The original SWAT seemed to have an impact all out of,proportio; to any merit it might posess. Certainly police departments across the country have adopted the name and glamour and the trend towards being low rent Marine platoons. Nobody appears to consider than it’s one hell of a lot easier to never massacre citizens by mistake if you have the writers on your side.

  12. The original SWAT seemed to have an impact all out of,proportio; to any merit it might possess.

    It was the theme song.

  13. Another reason we have been loving this Netflix hack here.

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